Matt Charboneau and John Niyo of The Detroit News break down what went wrong for Michigan State in its loss at Ohio State. The Detroit News
Columbus, Ohio — Here’s the thing about Ohio State: If you don’t catch them when you can, they’ll be gone before you know it.
And that was as true Saturday night at Ohio Stadium as it has been for most of the last decade, the Buckeyes running away from another Big Ten opponent in front of a sellout crowd of 104,797, this time 34-10 against Michigan State.
Michigan State was “hanging” for a while, to use coach Mark Dantonio’s phrasing. But “a while” is usually all you get against a team as talented as this, and it’s rarely enough.
And if you didn’t feel it as Michigan State squandered some early opportunities provided by its defense in this one, you surely did when the cracks started to show — maybe some fatigue, too — and all that talent started flooding through.
There was Ohio State’s quarterback, Justin Fields, escaping the pocket and extending plays, doing “whatever he needs to do,” as Dantonio put it. Like that 60-yard pass play to Binjimen Victor for the Buckeyes’ first touchdown, courtesy of a nifty play design and a coverage mix-up. Or Fields’ 35-yard scramble on third-and-5 on the Buckeyes’ next possession.
That one led to another touchdown, as Fields found his tight end open over the middle and then watched Luke Farrell pinball his way into the endzone. Michigan State’s star linebacker, Joe Bachie, tried to strip the football loose on the play — “bad instincts,” he said later — instead of wrapping him up and making the tackle.
It was a similar story on Ohio State’s next drive, too, as a poor run fit by Bachie — and a bad angle by safety Xavier Henderson — helped spring J.K. Dobbins into the open field for a 67-yard touchdown that made it 24-10. But the final mistake on that play — cornerback Josiah Scott’s desperate attempt at a punch-out trying to force a fumble after he’d chased down Dobbins — felt like something else.
Michigan State's Brian Lewerke, Darrell Stewart, Joe Bachie and Raequan Williams talk about the loss to Ohio State. Matt Charboneau, The Detroit News
It felt like desperation, quite frankly, as Michigan State's Big Ten title hopes went dark in the middle of a prime-time "Blackout" at the Horseshoe. A home where the Buckeyes have now won 15 consecutive Big Ten games dating back to the Spartans' soggy surprise four years ago.
And it only highlighted the problem the rest of the conference has so much trouble solving: Ohio State really is something else.
"If you’ve got a missed assignment, it’s gonna turn into a critical error," Bachie said, repeating something the coaches were harping on all week in practice back in East Lansing. "And that happened today. Against some other teams, maybe that doesn’t happen. But they’re gonna take advantage of it."
That's because they have the kind of game-breaking talent — on both sides of the ball — that other Big Ten programs often chase but rarely catch.
Sure, you’ll find a Saquon Barkley here, and a Jonathan Taylor there. But at Ohio State, it’s as if they roll them off an assembly line. The Buckeyes boast 60 four- and five-star recruits on their current roster. That’s second only to Alabama in college football, ahead of both Georgia — Fields was a Bulldog before he transferred to Ohio State last winter — and defending national champ Clemson.
Since 2000, no team has had more players drafted by the NFL, either. The Buckeyes have had 131, with Michigan (83) and Wisconsin (81) the next closest among league foes.
And as gamely as the Spartans’ played Saturday night in what was easily the hardest-hitting contest Ohio State faced to date this fall — “This is definitely the most banged up I've been after a game,” Fields admitted afterward — that’s a huge obstacle for any team to overcome.
Even a team — or a program — like Michigan State that has had as much success as any against the Buckeyes. (No team has beaten the Buckeyes more than the Spartans since Dantonio took over the program in 2007.) Or, yes, one that has won as many Big Ten titles in this decade. (Michigan State, Wisconsin and Ohio State are all tied with three apiece.)
In fact, it was Dantonio who said as much earlier in the week, noting Ohio State’s recent dominance — 61-5 in Big Ten play since 2012 — and admitting the road to the championship “goes through Columbus,” before adding with a wry smile, “I don't think I'm letting the cat out of the bag there.”
No, he’s not. And that’s not to say the rest of the conference is kitty litter, either.
It’s just that this Ohio State team looks as dangerous as ever offensively -- piling up nearly 300 yards in the second quarter alone -- now that Fields has arrived to add a run-pass conflict on every down. (He finished with 61 yards and a touchdown on 11 carries Saturday, and the Buckeyes totaled 323 on the ground as a team.) And with new head coach Ryan Day coaching every bit as aggressively as his predecessor, Urban Meyer. Maybe even more so, as we saw Saturday night, with Day keeping his foot on the gas pedal — and his starters in the game — all the way to the finish.
Michigan State tried to keep pace, and at times, Brian Lewerke & Co. seemed capable. But a couple early turnovers sapped any momentum they might've had out of the gate, and ill-timed penalties and dropped passes killed drives as well.
Meanwhile, the Ohio State defense that was such a mess last season is now making full use of all that talent, including a pair of likely top-15 draft picks in defensive end Chase Young and cornerback Jeffrey Okudah. Co-coordinators Greg Mattison — remember him? — and Jeff Hafley have the Buckeyes playing a different scheme that’s producing far different results. They’ve yet to allow a team more than 300 yards of offense, and they’re ranked in the top five in scoring defense at 8.8 points per game.
All of which gets us back to the original point here, if not the message delivered by Saturday night's result.
If you couldn't beat the Buckeyes before, what makes you think you can now? Halfway through another season in Columbus, that's still a question the rest of the Big Ten can't confidently answer.